Tuesday 22 October 2019

'I was strung out to hell' - Christy Dignam on the hole in his soul

 

Christy Dignam pictured in Xico bar and restaurant on Baggot Street. Photo: Kip Carroll
Christy Dignam pictured in Xico bar and restaurant on Baggot Street. Photo: Kip Carroll
Christy: "Singing again, the darkness lifted off me". Photo: Kip Carroll

Sarah Caden

Currently, Christy Dignam says, he's addicted to Cadbury's Dairy Milk Fruit & Nut bars.

He'll eat them until he can't stand the sight of them. Then, he'll find something new. We're sitting in the bar of Xico, in Dublin 2, in the building that was once the Baggot Inn. Christy mentions good times in the Baggot with Aslan, but he explains at length about Ismael's kebabs, on the corner of the lane beside the Baggot Inn.

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Once, he was addicted to those kebabs. He had one, and then he couldn't get enough of them. He and his then girlfriend, now wife, Kathryn, would get the bus to Parnell Square from Finglas, and walk the 20 minutes up to Baggot Street, just so he could get his hit.

"We'd sit on the steps of the Dail, eating kebabs," Christy recalls. "And I ate them until I got sick of them, and then I moved on to something else."

Christy:
Christy: "Singing again, the darkness lifted off me". Photo: Kip Carroll

Fruit & Nut and kebabs are child's play in the scheme of Christy's well-known past addictions. They are the safe end of things compared with the heroin and, for a time, the crack cocaine that nearly killed him, and his well-documented back-and-forth battles to give up.

"I have an addictive personality or something," says Christy, though he says it in such a way that suggests he knows it sounds throwaway, a bit dismissive of the complex reasons behind his habits.

Today, over six years into ongoing treatment for amyloidosis, a rare bone-marrow cancer, Christy says he often wonders what might have been if his life had taken a different turn. If addiction hadn't got him, what might he have achieved?

"If it hadn't been there, imagine what would have been possible," he says, and by 'it', he doesn't mean the heroin, specifically. Instead, he means the hole in his soul he filled with heroin, which Christy believes was created by sexual abuse when he was a small boy.

"If I hadn't never needed heroin, how would things have worked out? You have to wonder," he says. "But I still consider myself very fortunate."

Cancer, Christy says, is the best thing that ever happened to him. His is a form of cancer that will roll on relentlessly, with no real reprieve in sight, but still, he considers himself a lucky man.

"It took a long time to get the diagnosis," Christy says. "But when I finally got it, the doctor said, 'If you have a bucket list, do it within the next six months'. And then Aslan didn't matter. The house. The car. Only my family mattered. Kathryn and Kiera and the grandkids. That's all that matters.

"I can't even tell you how powerful that feeling was," Christy says. "I felt all these years, what I'd been looking for - there it was in front of me."

For a time, when faced with only six months to live, it must have felt to Christy like he'd learned this too late. Six months is a short time, but he got longer than that. The treatment works and continues to work. The amyloidosis doesn't go away, but it's kept at bay. He's still here and he looks well.

Are you well? I ask him. Would you know in yourself if you weren't?

"I know exactly how I am," Christy says.

He gets bloods done every couple of weeks in Beaumont Hospital. Those results get sent to the centre of excellence for the illness, in the Royal Free Hospital in London. Then he gets a report back.

Christy explains the regular reports. He explains how bone marrow works, how amyloidosis happens when cells produce proteins that attack the body and can attack anywhere in the body. He tells me about how there are kappa and lambda protein light chains and how they must be kept within a certain ratio, or he's in trouble.

"At the moment, they're grand," says Christy. "But every month, you're sitting there on tenterhooks."

It must be all-consuming, I suggest, and Christy agrees that it is. You can fall into thinking of yourself as a sick person and nothing more than that.

He is very curtailed by the effects of illness, too. His heart muscles were damaged and stiffened in the time before he got a diagnosis and treatment, so he can't walk very far. He's unable to sleep for more than two hours at a stretch. He's in constant fear of infection. His kidneys don't function properly, so he's on a lot of diuretics. The list goes on.

Just staying alive sounds like a full-time job.

It's not the life he wants, obviously, but it's life, and Christy Dignam does not feel sorry for himself.

Kathryn, his wife, is the person for whom Christy Dignam feels sympathy.

"I feel desperate for her. If reincarnation is true, she must have been a bastard in another life," he says with a laugh. "I remember thinking years ago, if the roles were reversed, I wouldn't have been big enough to tolerate what she's put up with. She's an amazing woman, she really is."

Why does Christy think she has stuck in there, I ask.

He gestures the length of himself, fine figure of a man, a jewel in his incisor glinting in the light, and he laughs again.

"Nah, she's just that good of a person," he says.

And you got very lucky, I say.

"Fucking jammy," Christy replies.

You could say that her caring, supportive role continues on, even though he's more than a decade off the heroin.

"Yeah," says Christy. "She's still looking after me. I don't deserve her."

We've met to talk about his new autobiography, My Crazy World, written with journalist Damian Corless. He undertook the memoir in part for his family and his fans, but also for himself. Life feels short and, Christy says, the memories aren't as sharp as they once were.

"When I came out of hospital first, five or six years ago," Christy says. "I was meeting people, and they'd be telling stories, 'Do you remember we did this and that?' and I didn't. I had chemo brain, it was all gone.

"I noticed then I was starting to forget things that were happening now," he says. "So I wanted to get it all down before I completely forget."

He talks about the book he co-wrote more than 15 years ago, when his life was in a very different place. He did it for the money, Christy says, with a resigned shrug. Now, his motivation is very different.

"When I did the first book, I was strung-out to hell," Christy says. "There's a lot of water under the bridge since then. I was running around like a headless chicken, strung-out to bits, at the time. This time, I wanted to get it on record for my grandkids that there was a bit of redemption at the end of all that. It didn't end there, that kind of thing."

The idea of legacy weighs heavily on him these days, Christy says, but more for the sake of those he loves, than in terms of his public image.

My Crazy World absolutely explains that there has been more to Christy Dignam than addiction, but of course it's threaded through a lot of his life. And he doesn't pull his punches. He explains how heroin felt great, but how it was also almost the death of him, and he explores, without self-pity, what brought him there.

In his book, Christy paints a picture of working-class Dublin family life filled with love, but also great hardship for both of his parents. They were strong people, as he depicts them, and they gave their six children a secure upbringing.

Into that firm but fair portrait of family life, Christy weaves in his sexual abuse, first at the hands of a neighbour, then the brother of a childhood friend. It shattered him, he says, and he lives with the repercussions to this day. It was like any sense of ease was stolen from him, and it wasn't until heroin came into his life that this was recaptured, albeit to his ultimate detriment.

Christy tells me, as he tells in the book, about the first time he took heroin. It wasn't planned. It was more stumbling into a massive, enduring disaster.

"I used to score hash from this biker over in Mount Pleasant Flats," Christy says. "And one day I arrived and he said, 'I've no hash, I've only skag'. I had no clue what skag was, you know. But I didn't want to make myself look uncool by asking. So I said, 'Grand, I'll have a bit of that'."

It was a tiny amount, Christy recalls, and he thought he'd been ripped off. He toyed with going back and tackling the guy, but instead he went off with his mates and his brother to Donabate, where they were going to pitch tents and have a party for the night.

"There were three cars of us, driving along the beach looking for somewhere to set up the tents," he says. "Eventually, it was getting dark and I ran up and over the dunes and it was lovely and flat, and we pitched up and lit a fire - it was huge, and we had a great night. Everyone was drinking and smoking and me and this other fella, we snorted this thing.

"And it was amazing," Christy says. "There's no point in me saying it wasn't. It was. It was a great feeling."

The next morning, he explains with a laugh, they woke up to find men standing around the tent, staring at them. They had pitched the tents and lit their fire in the middle of Portrane Golf Club.

"We had to run off the course," Christy says. "But that's not the main point. The point was that I'd never felt like that before."

Did the guy he snorted it with end up with a problem, I ask.

"No," says Christy, plainly. "Because what happened that day was I took the heroin and I felt like I was home. I felt like this is how everyone else feels when they wake up in the morning. This is how normal people feel. This is how I should have always felt.

"I didn't feel high or stoned or seeing pink elephants or any of the shite people think about taking drugs," he continues. "I just felt like I was home. And it was the first time in my life that I could remember feeling that way."

He didn't do it again immediately. Heroin wasn't as readily available as it became as the 1980s rolled on and into the 1990s. His generation, Christy says unhappily, were "the pioneers". It was a few years later until he encountered heroin again.

"And from that moment on," he says, "I was in."

He talks about how heroin addiction gets you in its grip, how you become consumed with all sorts of bargains with yourself, tricks to convince yourself and others that you're not really hooked, just messing around. Everyone could see it, though. It messed up his personal life. It messed up the relationships in Aslan. It messed up opportunities for Aslan, who, for a certain time in the 1980s, were tipped as the next U2.

"I would wake up days and I couldn't even walk into a shop," Christy says of how he felt without heroin. "It still happens to me. Even arriving here today, walking in, I get this vulnerable feeling."

It's a fight-or-flight feeling, he agrees.

"Yeah, you just feel out of your comfort zone and all at sorts," he explains. "So I'd be like that and then I'd have some [heroin] and I'd be, 'Ah, Sarah, great to see you. Do you want a drink? Drink for Sarah!' I'd be ace-of-spades then."

The change was that dramatic, and his Aslan bandmates knew it only too well; Kathryn knew it only too well, and his daughter Keira grew up knowing it, too. It robbed him of a lot, but it robbed those around him as well.

I tell Christy I heard the poet John Cooper Clarke on Desert Island Discs recently, and he said he never actually wanted to give up heroin, but he did it for the people around him.

"I can understand that," says Christy. "It's like a warm fuzzy place, so why would you want to give that up? It's only because of all the shit that surrounds it that you want to give it up, all the mayhem it causes."

If it hadn't been heroin, the want in Christy Dignam would have made itself known in other ways, however.

"I'd have found something else, yeah," he says. "I would have been an alcoholic. I'd be dead. I'd probably have committed suicide."

When he goes back through his life and imagines the different turn it could have taken, Christy is going past the heroin, back to the abuse. That is what shook him. That's what needs working on in an addict, he says. It's what makes them the addict, not the drugs.

He's a firm believer in the Portuguese approach to drug abuse and addiction, which legalises the drugs and puts money into properly mending the addicts. Not just getting them off the drugs, but seeking the source of the distress that drives them to drugs.

He rants about the recent refusal of planning permission for an injection centre in Dublin city centre.

"There'd be more people using?" he exclaims angrily. "Let the people in Merchants Quay Ireland, who understand it, decide. Not some person with a restaurant that'll be gone in five years anyway.

"This government has a lot to answer for," Christy says. "I think Leo is a bit arrogant. At the beginning, I thought he was great. He's the son of an immigrant; he's a gay man. I thought, 'OK, here's a man who is in the real modern world and he'll be great for the country'.

"But now he'll go to gay parades here and gay parades there, but it's all spin. There's no reality."

Christy takes a sip of water after this outpouring of heated outrage. The diuretics make his mouth dry and you can see that the water doesn't really ease it. He's easily tired, too, and takes regular naps to make up for the lack of sleep at night. The cancer doesn't let him forget it's there.

It's very important not to let it take over, though, Christy says.

"Six months before I was diagnosed," he says, "I felt like I was 18. I could do cartwheels. Then I was sick and I felt 88. They treated me and I was in recovery, and my life was saved, but for what? I was in pain. I was still suffering the effects of chemo, and it's hard to explain to people how bad it makes you feel.

"Then I stared thinking about Aslan and me and my career and all, and I looked at it all and thought, 'You sang a few songs. There you go, that's what you wasted your life on, you fucking prick. What a waste'. I got really, really depressed."

Singing brought him back. He found himself having to relearn Aslan songs, thanks again to the "chemo brain", and that revived him. It all felt fresh, like he'd only started singing for the first time. He started doing small gigs, and he's still performing.

"Singing again, the darkness lifted off me," Christy says. "And what you were saying earlier about the hole in me, if I didn't have the music outlet and the performance outlet, the demons would start creeping back in again. And it's those times, when I'm feeling isolated, that I just start thinking, 'Why wouldn't I use again? What's the point of staying clean? Get a bit of pleasure. What's the point of this? There's no pleasure in life, I'll get a gram of gear'."

"So I have to not let myself get to that dark spot," he says.

When he feels it creeping in, Christy has strategies to get him out of it. And friends he can turn to.

"Kathryn can see it in a heartbeat," he says. "They say with alcoholics in recovery, that they have the first drink a month before the glass hits their lips. Kathryn can see that point with me, she can see it coming.

"She says, 'I'm telling you, you start that and I'm out. I'm not going through that again'. And I'm terrified of that. That's enough to terrify me out of taking drugs."

He's only 59, but Christy Dignam has, in recent years, taken on a sort of wise-old-man mantle. There is a great warmth for someone who, once, evoked feelings of pity and even some fear. It surprises him but seems to bring Christy a sense of happiness, maybe even a sense of acceptance.

"It's surprising," he says, "but it's bleeding great. It's shocking. It's lovely. You go around the country and people much older than me are so nice, and it's amazing. And I don't know what it is. I feel unworthy of it. A bit embarrassed sometimes. I don't feel worthy of their respect or whatever

What is it stirs this in people? I ask. What does Christy Dignam touch in people?

"I don't like thinking about it," he says, the feelings of unworthiness most to the fore. "We've all fucked up, but I've talked about it. People have seen that with the drugs and the sexual abuse. They've seen me on The Late Late Show or Brendan O'Connor's show or whatever, and I think people respected the honesty of what they've seen. I don't know."

His health may mean that life is lived on tenterhooks, but Christy Dignam works hard to appreciate that, nonetheless, it is life, and that he got more than the projected six months to appreciate his family.

He and Kathryn live close to Kiera and her husband Darren and their two little boys. Grandparenthood is amazing, Christy says.

"Of all the decisions I've made, and I've made some shit decisions," he says, "Kathryn has to be one of the few good ones.

"And that's why, if I'm asked if I feel sorry for myself, I don't, because when I look at my family, I feel extremely lucky. Most of the people I used with are dead now or they're in jail.

"And at the end of the day, it's about the family and the music," says Christy Dignam. "All I ever wanted to do was sing, and what I've discovered is that with a bigger stage, you don't get a bigger horn. I still love the music, and I'd be fucked without it."

'My Crazy World' by Christy Dignam and Damian Corless is published by Gill. To book My Crazy World: An Evening of Conversation and Music with Christy Dignam, at 7.30pm, on Wednesday, September 18, at Eason, O'Connell St, D1, see easons.com/eason-events/christy-dignam

Photography by Kip Carroll

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